The Gemarah on daf 3a (yes we are still on daf 3 in my Iyun class) describes a takana enacted to solve the problem of Tznuot and Prutzot- the modest and the brazen or lascivious.

The problem at hand is as follows: if a man writes a conditional divorce “If I don’t come home in a year, you are divorced,” the woman waiting at home may not know whether she is in fact divorced. If he chose not to come home at the end of the year, then she is in fact divorced because the condition was fulfilled purposely by the husband. But if some accidental circumstances forced the husband not to return, then she is still married because the condition was not fulfilled by the husband, but rather by the an outside force (let us call it an act of God.)

According to Rashi the modest/meek woman takes this lack of information and never remarries rendering herself an aguna, while a brazen woman fills the void with a new husband and may unwittingly give birth to Mamzerim (bastard children) if she in fact is officially still married. For both personality types the problem is the lack of information that allows these women to create ill consequences for themselves, which the takana can solve by pronouncing her divorced in any event no matter why the husband didn’t return.

Tosfot has a bit of a different read. The problem is not lack of information but the women themselves are problematic, each personality type with her own machinations. The modest woman, says Tosfot, really can get married because statistically it is unlikely that her husband was held up by circumstances and so she is halakhicly allowed to remarry (though I’m not sure whose doing their statistics). She with her own personal stringencies refuses to except the halakhic statisticians’ pronouncement and therefore she creates her own igun. The Perutza on the other hand knows for a fact that an accident of fate has held her husband up in some foreign land- only she doesn’t tell anyone. She takes advantage of the same statistics proffered to the modest woman and tells the world she is remarrying because her husband isn’t returning and the divorce took affect, when she knows this not to be true.

Are these stereotypes worth anything to the modern Feminist reader? And whose fault is the gemarah really pointing towards? I think all women will have a similar problem if the husband asserts an essentially vague condition to a divorce. If he is negligent enough to write her a conditional divorce without sending word as to why he didn’t return then any woman will be in trouble. Perhaps the gemarah is taking his faults and turning it into extreme personalities of women.

If I am positing that the fault is of the husband then why call this “the problem of Tznuot and Prutzot.” A “normal” woman, who is neither quick to remarry nor slow to get over her denial, will herself be transformed into a neurotic, trying to weigh the possibilities. Has enough time passed? Did he want to remain married and is trying to get back yet was prevented against his will from returning? Was he eaten by a lion? Did he willingly chose to abandon me because he met a younger more beautiful woman to start a family with in some far off town? The imagination is a dangerous thing.

The experience of not knowing of being trapped in your thoughts and in your nightmares in itself could turn a woman into a Perutzah or a Tznuah. One woman may shrink into herself, nurse her romantic memories, refuse to see the truth of his betrayal and spend the rest of her life mourning his disappearance. While another woman may turn to anger and brazenness. She may let that anger blind her from the hints of his return or prevent her from waiting some reasonable time, or from hiring a private eye. She says “he left me! Well I’m not waiting for him to find himself.”

I like this reading of the text because it doesn’t mean women are by nature extreme emotional beings who can’t be trusted. Rather it is unfair to leave women hanging in lacking of control and lacking information. The fault belongs to the man for leaving her with a worthless conditional divorce, and some of the blame can be shared ultimately with the structure of one-sided marriage that leaves only the woman helplessly chained. Perhaps it’s this blame that actually propels the rabbis to find a way out, to validate this questionable divorce so she can move on. 

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